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Five things to look out for in 2023: Smith-Farrell tussle one to watch in big year for France

With a World Cup in the autumn, 2023 offers plenty to look forward to for rugby union fans from both a domestic and European perspective.

Can England bounce back? Will Ireland fulfil their potential? And is it finally France's time? The battle for the Webb Ellis Cup will be the priority for many but before that, there are several other issues to sort out, especially for the club sides.

1. Smith to emerge from Farrell's shadow

A dilemma Eddie Jones failed to solve, and that arguably contributed to his downfall as England coach, was how to shape his back-line.

The Australian's insistence on having two first-receivers is hardly new but his decision to continue with Owen Farrell outside of Marcus Smith appeared to hurt both.

Farrell's status within the side, reaching 100 caps in the autumn, was reflected in his desire to drive the team, often overshadowing the actual primary playmaker, Smith.

The 23-year-old's best moments for the Red Rose have been without the skipper in the team and with a bruiser at number 12 and then another ball player, usually Henry Slade, at outside centre.

With new boss Steve Borthwick often favouring physicality over flair while in charge at Leicester, he may give Smith the keys to number 10 for the Six Nations, with the Red Rose 1/1 with an -11 Handicap in the Game 3-Way Betting for their opener against Scotland.

2. South African sides to go deep in the Champions Cup

The European competitions are no longer just that, with the decision to expand the United Rugby Championship to include the South African sides after their exclusion from Super Rugby having now seen those teams ascend to both the Champions and Challenge Cups.

The Bulls, Sharks and Stormers made their Champions Cup debuts earlier this month, with all of them winning one or more of their two matches.

The Sharks bounced back from a poor start in the URC to win both home and away and the nature of the tournament, which sees 16 of the 24 teams progress into the knockout rounds, means one or more could reach the latter stages.

Geography means they will undoubtedly have an advantage if teams have to travel to them, while the Bulls' position at altitude in Pretoria suggests the conditions will be on their side.

As so often has been the case with the national team, the South Africans are experts in knockout rugby and the Siya Kolisi-inspired Sharks could be the ones to watch in the Champions Cup, with them 16/1 in the To Win Outright market.

3. Saracens to conquer England, and potentially Europe

After a tumultuous few years, Saracens are back at Europe's top table and looking extremely sharp. While they lost for the first time this season on Friday, going down 29-20 at London Irish, they have been otherwise flawless, winning their previous nine Premiership games and beating both Edinburgh and Lyon in the Champions Cup.

Those results mean they currently sit 10 points clear at the top of the domestic standings, while they are almost guaranteed to earn a place in the knockout stages of the Champions Cup.

They will, of course, lose several players in the early spring for the Six Nations but will still be able to call upon the likes of Alex Goode and Alex Lozowski.

Additionally, while his international position might be under threat, Farrell is the undisputed king at Saracens. In fact, the threat of losing his England place may spur him on at club level when it comes to the business end of both the Premiership and Champions Cup.

Mark McCall's men are 13/10 to win a sixth Premiership crown in the Grand Final Winner market, while they are 7/1 to be crowned kings of Europe for a fourth time.

Related Rugby Union News

English Premiership weekend preview: Sarries seek a perfect 10

Rugby Union: Steve Borthwick excited by England challenge

4. Ireland to fail to make the last four…again

Ireland's inability to make it past the quarter-finals at World Cups has been one of the great sagas of the tournament's history.

So often they have been among the form teams 12 months out but unravelled when it matters, most recently in 2019 when they lost to hosts Japan in the pool stages before being smashed 46-14 by New Zealand in the last eight.

Andy Farrell has done a fine job since then, arguably making the team stronger after succeeding Joe Schmidt but doubts remain as to whether their forwards can match the biggest packs, while they retain an overreliance on Johnny Sexton. Sexton has struggled for fitness at the last two World Cups and will be 38 in France.

With holders South Africa and Celtic rivals Scotland joining them in Pool B and then either France or New Zealand in the last eight, there could be more World Cup heartache.

Ireland are 1/1 to Win Pool B, a fair price on paper. However, if history repeats itself, it could end up looking quite ambitious.

5. France to become world champions

Much of the above has been geared towards the World Cup and it could finally be France's time.

Les Bleus have been the runners-up three times since the tournament's inaugural edition in 1987, with coach Fabien Galthie a beaten finalist in 1999.

Galthie has transformed the side since first coming into the picture as an assistant to Jacques Brunel in 2019 and has an 81% win-ratio.

With inspirational captain Charles Ollivon spearheading a powerful pack and the Toulouse trio of scum-half Antoine Dupont, fly-half Romain Ntamack and full-back Thomas Ramos igniting the back-line, the hosts are 5/2 in the To Win Outright betting and few would be surprised to see them finally do it.

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